Friday September 5th, 2014

NEW YORK -- Can Kei Nishikori continue his historic run? Will Roger Federer be able to recover from his five-set match against Gael Monfils? Here's a preview of Saturday's men's semifinals at the U.S. Open:

No. 1 Novak Djokovic vs. No. 11 Kei Nishikori (12 p.m., Arthur Ashe Stadium): Nishikori earned a well-deserved two days of rest after posting back-to-back five-set wins for the first time in his career to become the first Japanese man since 1933 to advance to a Grand Slam semifinal. His victories over Milos Raonic -- in a match that tied the latest finish ever at the U.S. Open when Nishikori put away a volley at 2:26 a.m. -- and Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka, were performances that chipped away at the long-standing theory that the 24-year-old was physically and mentally "soft." 

The data points have been there. He beat Federer to make the Sony Open semifinals in March but then withdrew with a groin injury. A month later he made his first ATP Masters 1000 final, in Madrid, beating Raonic and No. 5 David Ferrer, and led then-No. 1 Rafael Nadal by a set and a break before retiring with a back injury. There were doubts he could rebound from outlasting Raonic here to compete with Wawrinka just 36 hours later, but he passed with flying colors. Maybe, just maybe, Nishikori has turned the corner. 

"I think he's playing best tennis of his life in the last 12 months," Djokovic said. "He started working with Michael Chang and he changed a few things in his game. He serves very efficiently. Obviously he's very, very fast, maybe one of the fastest on the tour."​

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In his last two matches, Nishikori benefited from facing offensive-minded players who can be error prone. Raonic hit 72 unforced errors; Wawrinka struck 78. Those free points helped keep Nishikori in the match, and his speed surely played a big part in forcing his opponents to go for too much. Djokovic is a different kind of player, though. He's kept his errors relatively low, with the most, 48, coming in his four-set win against Andy Murray in the quarterfinals. The 27-year-old Serb will be the best defender and returner that Nishikori has seen all tournament. Nishikori has been broken just eight times through five matches, including four against Raonic. How easily Nishikori can hold against Djokovic will set the tone of the match, their first since 2011 and only their third meeting overall. 

Prediction: Djokovic in 4. 

No. 3 Roger Federer vs. No. 16 Marin Cilic (after Djokovic-Nishikori on Ashe): Federer is 5-0 against Cilic, though they played a tight match last month at the Rogers Cup, where the Swiss needed seven match points to seal a 7-6 (5), 6-7 (3), 6-4 victory. Cilic reached his first U.S. Open semifinal by defeating No. 31 Gilles Simon in five sets in the fourth round and No. 7 Tomas Berdych in straight sets in the quarterfinals. Federer, of course, rallied from a two-set deficit and saved two match points to overcome Gael Monfils 4-6, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-2 on Thursday to make his first third major semifinal of the season and first at the U.S. Open since 2011. 

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​Cilic did not play the U.S. Open last year; instead, he was home in Croatia, training and waiting to return from a four-month doping suspension. (Cilic said he unknowingly ingested a banned stimulant from a glucose tablet bought at a pharmacy.) He has come back strong, winning two early-season titles and pushing Djokovic to five sets in the Wimbledon quarterfinals. Cilic's powerful game has been clicking in New York.

Cilic said he's been playing well since around the French Open, where he lost to Djokovic in four sets in the third round. "Things are in a good place for me," he said.

"I must say he's really cleaned up his game," Federer said. "I mean, he's done well in the past. It's not like he's come from the top 50 player to all of a sudden knocking on the top 10 door. He's been there before."

Unlike Djokovic and Nishikori, Federer and Cilic have just one day of rest before the semifinals. That shouldn't be a problem for Cilic, but we'll have to see how Federer's body rebounds from his tough five-setter against Monfils. Given how well Federer has responded physically throughout the year, I don't think it will be an issue.

Prediction: Federer in 5. 

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